Gregory Crouch is the author, most recently, of the World War II flying story “China’s Wings: War, Intrigue, Romance and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom During the Golden Age of Flight.”
Hachette. 406 pp. $30
Pop historian Kenneth C. Davis, best-selling author of the “Don’t Know Much About” series, tackles American military history in his new book, “The Hidden History of America at War.” Using “six emblematic battles” as lenses through which to examine the nation’s military history, Davis sets himself a twofold slate of objectives. On one hand, he aims “to fill some of the gaping holes in our knowledge . . . and to tell the stories that the schoolbooks leave out.” Considering the deplorable state of the average American’s historical knowledge, accomplishing that goal is about as difficult as stepping over a sidewalk crack. On the more serious side, he promises “to explore how America has gone to war; who has fought its battles since the Revolution; how each of America’s wars has transformed the American military establishment; and how the country’s uneasy relationship with its armed services has shifted over more than 235 years.”
Those are big questions that defy simple answers. Meaningfully unraveling them is too tall an order for an intentionally lightweight historical tour. However, there is much to enjoy, learn and appreciate in Davis’s “Hidden History,” and it should awaken many to the manifold joys of reading history.
Davis begins strong, with bayonets fixed, in a trench outside Yorktown, Va., on the dark, moonless night of Oct. 14, 1781, among the hardened Continental Army veterans of the Rhode Island Regiment as they steeled themselves to assault a pair of British redoubts anchoring the defenses of Lord Cornwallis’s besieged army. At 7 p.m., Alexander Hamilton, one of Gen. George Washington’s aides, quietly issued the most sacred command in the canon of infantry leadership —“Follow me!” — and led the rush forward. With a French nobleman, the Marquis de Lafayette, in the van of another spearhead, the Americans and their French allies hacked into the British positions. Boosted to the top of the enemy-held wall, “the future first Treasury secretary dueled sword-to-bayonet with the cursing British. . . . Hamilton fought for his life until his men joined him and drove the redcoats from the wall.”
Remarkable about the Rhode Islanders was that 140 of the soldiers were black, “slaves who had been promised emancipation in return for enlisting,” and they served in an integrated regiment. Racially mixed units wouldn’t become the norm in the U.S. Army for 167 more years, until President Harry Truman mandated military integration in 1948.
Five days later, Cornwallis surrendered, giving Washington the victory that sealed the young republic’s independence. Less well known to modern Americans is the indisputable fact that the triumph wouldn’t have happened without the French navy, which thwarted the reinforcement, supply or evacuation of Cornwallis’s army by defeating a British fleet in the Battle of the Virginia Capes. “When the normally stoic and reserved Washington arrived in Virginia and saw the anchored French fleet blockading [Cornwallis],” Davis writes, “he actually jumped for joy.”
Among the spoils of victory, Washington received the return of some of his personal property — two slaves who’d fled to the British. George Washington, champion of American freedom, was presumably delighted to send the runaways back to work at the forced-labor gulag he managed at Mount Vernon.
That’s salty stuff. After Yorktown, Davis tells the stories of the 1864-65 siege of Petersburg, Va., the climactic battle of the Civil War; the 1901 massacre of Company C in Balangiga during the Philippine Insurrection — the most “hidden” of Davis’s histories, since it spotlights a war about which most Americans have absolutely no knowledge; the 1945 Battle of Berlin at the savage end of World War II in Europe — an odd choice for a book claiming to provide insights into the American way of war, since the Soviet Red Army captured Berlin without American participation; the Battle of Hué in the communists’ 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War; and the 2004 Battle of Fallujah in Iraq. In each case, his chapters build from anecdote into broad historical brush strokes that quote liberally from other historians.
Although most of Davis’s hopscotch history is basically sound, he could have provided more perspicacious strategic summaries. For example, when surveying the Civil War’s 1864 Virginia campaign, Davis takes Union Gen. (and future president) Ulysses S. Grant to task as a “butcher” for the terrible losses his army incurred during the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. “When Cold Harbor was over, Richmond, seat of the Confederacy, was still in Confederate hands,” Davis writes, making the campaign sound like a Confederate victory. It wasn’t. Richmond, for so long the goal of Union offensives, was an unimportant objective. The crucial heart of the Southern cause resided in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Nothing short of its utter destruction would end the rebellion. Grant knew that, and although his losses were truly appalling, Lee’s were as well, and through that bloody campaign Grant had transformed his army into a fearsome military Rottweiler with its jaws latched onto the body of Lee’s army, one that wouldn’t stop its furious shaking until it had torn the Confederates to shreds. Attrition is the style of warfare at which the United States has always excelled.
Davis’s choice of the 1945 Battle of Berlin is particularly curious. He justifies it as “hidden history” by claiming that “in postwar American history books, the contribution of the Soviet Union in fighting Hitler — along with the astonishing toll the war had taken on Russia — was largely brushed aside,” patently ignoring popular works such as William Craig’s “Enemy at the Gates” (1974), about the titanic, tide-turning battle of Stalingrad, and Cornelius Ryan’s “The Last Battle” (1966), a bestselling blockbuster specifically devoted to the Berlin battle. In a lifetime of reading World War II history, I can’t think of a single book that denigrates the outsize Soviet contribution to Hitler’s defeat.
Although Davis delivers six buoyant, fast-paced stories, they shouldn’t be taken as gospel, for an unfortunate quantity of factual errors, overstatements and careless language mars the narrative. It was Cornwallis’s army besieged in Yorktown, not Gen. Henry Clinton’s; the British navy wasn’t indisputedly established as the most powerful on Earth until its victories in the Napoleonic Wars, two decades after the American Revolution, and at no point in history have most experts considered the British army the world’s most powerful; yes, Arthur MacArthur (Douglas’s father) won his Medal of Honor on Missionary Ridge in November 1863, but the action pertained to the Battle of Chattanooga, not Chickamauga, which occurred the previous September; the “million cubic centimeters of concrete” Davis claims went into the construction of Hitler’s underground bunkers isn’t enough to pave a suburban driveway (surely he means a million cubic meters); on D-Day, Gen. Maxwell Taylor did not “parachute onto the beaches of Normandy” — he landed near a village several miles inland; the Japanese seized control of French Indochina (modern Vietnam) in 1940 and ’41, not 1945. They are too many, and in aggregate, they undermine the book’s value.
Although “The Hidden History of America at War” is bound to feed the dangerous American conviction that a thimbleful of knowledge qualifies any individual to issue sweeping policy pronouncements, it does deliver a number of meaningful insights: “It is always easier to get into a war than get out of one” is paramount among them. Unfortunately, the United States didn’t internalize the sanguinary experiences of the Philippine Insurrection, 1899-1902, deeply enough to prevent the careless involvements in Vietnam in the 1960s and, more recently, in Iraq, mistakes which cost so many thousands of lives. As philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”